Three years after President Rodrigo Duterte boldly promised that he would ride a jet ski to stick the Philippine flag in the Spratly Islands and assert the country’s sovereignty amid China’s encroachment, what did he achieve to protect the country’s interest in the maritime dispute?
Palace sees stronger PH-China ties
His strongman’s pledge during the 2016 presidential campaign was in stark contrast to his pronouncements now that he is occupying the government’s top post.
In fact, Malacañang has expressed optimism that the relationship between the Philippines and China would strengthen in the remaining years of President Duterte’s term, despite Beijing’s refusal to recognize the country’s 2016 arbitral victory which spelled out the country’s marine entitlements.
“We hope to strengthen our ties,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters in an interview.
“Given that there have been proposed projects, and it involves certain Chinese companies, then it appears there would be better relationship between two countries,” he added.
Among the proposed projects between Beijing and Manila was the joint oil exploration in the South China Sea.
President Duterte met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last October to assert the country’s 2016 arbitral victory that junked Beijing’s claims in the disputed waters, but Xi maintained his position that his government would not recognize the ruling of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Despite Xi’s refusal to recognize the court decision, Duterte would continue peaceful negotiations with Beijing to resolve the issue.
“Negotiation [is] still the best method by which to settle differences between the two countries,” Panelo said.
“The policy on China remains the same. We are friends with them but we are a sovereign nation and we are against any intrusion to that sovereignty,” he added.
Duterte said he was not satisfied with Xi’s response but opted not to insist on the matter since the Chinese leader was under stress due to the political unrest then in Hong Kong, an administrative region of China.
The President, however, bared that Xi offered Manila a bigger share in the joint oil exploration in the South China Sea if the Philippine government would set aside the arbitral ruling, even as he insisted he would not abandon the country’s claim of territories in the disputed seas.
Duterte has been criticized for his “soft stance” towards the territorial dispute, far from his jet ski promise during the presidential campaign.
He was told by Forbes writer Panos Mourdoukoutas to stand up against Asia’s “bully” and mobilize the Filipino troops to stop Chinese vessels from entering into the country’s waters.
Mourdoukoutas noted that Vietnam, one of the claimants in the South China Sea, outlawed many of China’s ongoing activities in the disputed territories, including building of artificial islands, blockades, and the deployment of offensive weaponry.
He also cited Malaysia for conducting a rare show of its missile power near the maritime region.
A political analyst warned that the Duterte’s “deferential approach” with the maritime dispute would weaken the country’s claims in the South China Sea.
The Philippines’ allies in the Asia-Pacific region could see this as “holding back on asserting the arbitral ruling,” said Michael Yusingco, legislative and policy consultant from Ateneo Policy Center.
But for Malacañang, Duterte’s friendly demeanor with China has been “effective.”
“I think its very effective. While he remains friendly, at the same time, he asserts sovereignty of this country. And the Chinese government has received it well,” Panelo said.
For Yusingco, a bilateral dialogue with China would be a “stop-gap measure at best,” but a multilateral approach would bring lasting resolution in the dispute.
“Discussions must involve ASEAN countries and nations in the Asia-Pacific with interest in the matter. For a long-term arrangement to be achieved, all the stakeholders must be present in the negotiation table,” he said.
Yusingco also said that public sentiment is a huge challenge for the President on this matter.
“They must bring the public on-board in the government’s strategy to assert our country’s rights in the WPS. Failure in this regard will taint the President’s legacy,” he said.
The September poll of the Social Weather Stations showed that China remains to be the least trusted country among Filipinos, with a net trust rating of -33 points.
Anti-China sentiments among Filipinos were likely to be triggered by the June 9 Recto Bank incident, the unannounced passage of Chinese vessels within the country’s waters, and the rise of Chinese workers in the Philippines.